A Whaley Big Blog Post

This week, author and illustrator Gerry Daly tells us all about creating his latest picture book, Finn’s First Song – A Whaley Big Adventure!

The story of Finn’s First Song – A Whaley Big Adventure started a few years ago when I was painting humpback whales in the picture book Where Are You, Puffling?. I really enjoyed painting them, especially the huge splash that they made.

Humpback whales make loud and spectacular sound patterns that are repeated, just as we would a favourite song. Finn’s First Song is about the adventures of a baby humpback who, after becoming lost, learns to sing himself and reunites with his mum.

I’m certainly not alone in being fascinated by these massive creatures and what life is like beneath the ocean surface. In school we learn that a whale is the largest creature on the planet; that blue whales are even bigger than the dinosaurs; with a beating heart as big as a small car and an appetite to eat up to 3.5 tonnes of food in one day. It’s all enough to give a lot of mind boggles!

A couple years ago I got to see whales in the ocean for the first time on a whale-watching trip off the coast of West Cork. I learned more about their long migration from the African coast to Ireland, how they revisit each year for the tasty food that they love and, of course, how they sing to each other over vast distances.

The story started to form when I thought there must be a time when a whale makes its very first attempts at a song. I started to imagine a baby humpback on that first migration with his mum. I pictured them both hearing the calls of his dad who is far away, already at the feeding grounds, and the baby whale somehow discovering that he too could make these sounds.

Songs can last over twenty minutes, which the whales memorise, then repeat. The reasons for these performances are still unknown, but the songs may be used to establish position, during courtship, or simply to say ‘Hey there’s loads of food over this way…!’ In any case, they are pretty important for the whales.

I made various attempts at putting the whale sounds into words before settling on ‘Squeeeak! … Thwop! … Thwop! … Whoop … Whoop … Whoop … Dwooooooerp! … Dwooooooerp!’

Also, it was on my mind how nowadays we are all very aware of the effect human behaviour is having throughout the planet’s ecosystems. We are familiar with the dangers of pollution from plastics in the ocean waters, but loud noise pollution from massive ships, sonar and seismic testing is another factor that disrupts the lives of sea creatures. Especially the migrating whales, since they need to be able to hear properly so they can locate each other and their food. I felt a noisy event in the story that affected Finn and his Mum would be true to life.

I wanted to convey as many aspects of Finn’s journey as I could. Like making jumps, big splashes and sleeping. It took me some time to figure out how a lost Finn would start to sing. I thought it would be interesting to introduce some other sea creatures and show the various ways in which they can communicate. I had good fun imagining how Finn would react, making attempts to mimic each one, and then gradually learning of his own amazing ability.

Before I start on any colour artwork, I sketch out several versions for the spreads. Sometimes the first idea is just right and remains as is; others need a bit more trying and testing with little dummy books to make them work. In the examples here you can see the initial sketches are quite close to the final artwork, but with some changes to composition.

My work is a sort of hybrid of traditional media and digital. I sketch for ages, working out everything for each scene. Then I work with gouache and watercolour paints, along with oil pastels and colouring pencils, to create the final artwork. I will often create the background separately from all the characters. Once everything has been scanned into the computer, I have the freedom then to treat it all as a collage and move things until I am happy.

This also allows for some flexibility with the text layout.

It’s important for me to bring a feeling of movement and energy to the illustrations. For some scenes I’ve tried to include a sense of swirling motion. For example, when Finn meets all the crystal jellyfish or when the other sea creatures swirl around listening to his song.

I really enjoyed bringing Finn’s Whaley Big Adventure to life. It was fun to give a certain someone who lives on Skellig Michael a little cameo in the book too.

I hope the story intrigues young readers and encourages lots of joining in with the sounds of the whale song. Perhaps one day, readers might be so lucky to see the awe-inspiring sight of a real live whale splashing the biggest splash!

Gerry Daly, March 2021

www.gerrydalyart.ie; @gerrydalyart on social medias

Gerry’s picture books, Finn’s First Song, Wee Donkey’s Treasure Hunt and Where Are You, Puffling? are all available to order from your local bookshop (online, over the phone or via email) or here.